“I’m praying for you.”
I’m interested in these words, what they say and what they mean — to the sender and the receiver — and I’m curious about how easy this is for some people to say, and how difficult for others.
I wonder how often that message sounds like sending those ubiquitous “thoughts and prayers”? (What does that mean?)
I also wonder why so many people seem to go out of their way not to say they are “praying.” These people say powerful, wonderful things:
- I’m keeping you in my thoughts.
- … sending you every good wish.
- You’ve got this, and we’ve got you.
- I’m holding hope with you.
- … sending love and strength.
- … pulling for you and sending positive thoughts and love.
- I’m sending positive energy your way.
But that’s what prayer is, isn’t it (all of that)? Those are prayers, aren’t they?
Over the years, there have been a few times my wife and I (co-pastors of our church), have had specific family or health needs, and in those times most who have reached out to us have offered prayers. In so many of the kind words spoken, we have been a little bit humbled that our own words, sermons and lessons from 20 years of pastoral life have come back to us.
Amy loves to say, borrowing from our Quaker friends, “I’ll be holding you in the light.” She has prayed those words so many times. Hearing them, offered for us, always has been healing. Or she will say, “I’m holding you close in my heart.” Those words have come back, too, like bread on the water.
It is rewarding to hear the theology you believe and have tried to preach and teach taking root in the spiritual discipline of a community. Prayer is part of that discipline, so let me say more in case you’re one of those who sends “hope” or “love” or “energy” but not “prayers.”
We consistently teach our children two things about praying. Maybe they bear repeating: 1) Prayer is not magic. 2) God is not Santa Claus.
“We pray in order to understand what we actually need.”
Prayer works, but not like magic. We don’t pray to get what we want. We pray in order to understand what we actually need. (It’s a new cardiac not a new Cadillac!) Prayer is communion with something that is beyond us, a Beyond that is also deep within us. And prayer takes many forms, so it is sad that many people seem only to know it as “asking.” Prayer works, but not like magic.
And God is not some supernatural St. Nick in the sky. When I say I don’t believe in a God who intervenes, most people don’t understand. But if God is never apart from us to begin with, how could any actual intervention even happen?
I say, “God always does everything God can do” (thank you, Frank Tupper), so I believe God is always all-that-God-is, always doing all God can do. And they ask, quizzically, “So, if God can’t do what you ask for, why would anyone pray?” I try to carefully explain the selfishness in that statement.
God is the great Beyond, always with us. Prayer is about trying to find some way to connect with that power, to commune with that love. It is not a means of manipulating some cosmic force for our individual wants.
“I say, ‘God always does everything God can do.’”
This is difficult, I know.
But maybe the prosperity gospel has simplified it too much. Maybe praying with that kind of theology has failed too many times, embarrassed too many people, left too many empty and alone, angry and afraid. And maybe praying like that, especially if someone’s job or marriage is on the line — or if it is a literal matter of life and death — maybe that kind of prayer will make you want to send “positive energy” instead.
I didn’t take enough science when I was in school to understand much about the quantum world, but apparently some physicists think matter and energy are really the same thing and that the universe is connected in some way we can’t yet understand. I believe prayer is mostly about what it does for the one who prays, and I have given up the magical notions of “divine intervention.” But if the universe actually is little vibrating strings of energy, energy that connects everything, then maybe the energy of mental brainwaves — sometimes exhibited by “sending positive energy” — is somehow connected to the God who is always doing everything God can do.
When my father-in-law died, a friend sent Amy a note: “I will be praying, with you in my thoughts.” He was saying something like, “When I think of you in light of this situation, I will remember you, but not just inside my head. Something will be different about the way I ‘think’ of you in your grieving.”
Wow. He wasn’t sending “thoughts and prayers.” And could there be a better way of praying than to be thought of like that? At any moment, on any day, to be thought of like that? Tell me God isn’t in that! Another friend likes to say, “I’m praying the best way I know how.” And I just say, Yes! How else could anyone pray?
If those who like me have given up on the magic could learn that “sending positive energy” actually is praying, we might rescue prayer from seeming out of touch and irrelevant in a 21st century world.
Russ Dean is co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. He holds degrees from Furman University, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Beeson Divinity School. He and his wife, Amy, have been co-pastors of Park Road since 2000. They are parents of two sons. Russ is active in social justice ministries and interfaith dialogue.